The first primary debate of the 2020 presidential election season saw cracks of daylight emerge in a Democratic field that has largely played to the progressive base, with the candidates clashing sharply over controversial policies like “Medicare-for-all” and calls to decriminalize illegal border crossings — while taking ample shots at President Trump in the process.
Staking out the left flank of the party Wednesday night in Miami were Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — the highest-polling candidate in the first debate batch — and long-shot Bill de Blasio, the New York City mayor. They were the only candidates to raise their hands when asked who’s willing to give up their private health insurance for a government option. Warren went on to staunchly defend 2020 rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare-for-all” plan.
Beto O’Rourke, the one-time media darling in the crowded Democratic field who has watched his poll numbers wilt in recent months, looked to regain much of his lost momentum on Wednesday night. While he was among a handful of candidates who gave some responses in Spanish, he repeatedly found himself on the receiving end of swipes from rivals, especially former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.
Among the candidates looking for breakout moments, Castro may have come the closest with his controversial call for the decriminalization of illegal border crossings, challenging his fellow presidential hopefuls to agree to repeal the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that applies. He called out O’Rourke by name for not supporting his proposal, saying, “I think you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue you would know that we should repeal this section.” Discussing the heartbreaking photo that emerged this week of a migrant father and toddler daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande, Castro said it “should piss us all off.”
President Trump, who was on his way to Osaka, Japan, for the G-20 Summit, watched at least the first half-hour of Wednesday’s debate, tweeting a one-word verdict of the event: “BORING!” He later swiped at NBC News and MSNBC for technical difficulties that marred part of the telecast.
Despite their differences on major issues, the candidates – especially Warren — rallied to downplay economic successes and growth under the Trump administration. “It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” Warren said of the economy. The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee rapid response team, though, sent email blasts and tweets “fact-checking” and defending the president’s economic record and the creation of “6 million jobs” since Election Day 2016.
Tonight is night two, and the next 10 Dems will spar over liberal policies that they believe will earn them the right to represent the party against Trump in 2020. Biden, Sanders and Mayor Pete are the three big names on stage.